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Don Price, the sexton of Orlando's Greenwood Cemetery, stands near a plot reserved for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. [Photo: Dustin Chambers for The Trace]

The Caretaker

For the Pulse "kids," Orlando created an eternal haven.

This story was published in partnership with The New Yorker 

Don Price’s workday begins in the old section of Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando. At 9:30 a.m., he pulls his red Dodge Ram pickup through the gates and drives counterclockwise along the roads that wind past the gravestones of 19th-century pioneers, war heroes, and former mayors. Networks of live oak branches loom overhead, Spanish moss hanging off the limbs like curly white hair. Price, the cemetery’s caretaker, looks through the windshield, scanning for anything that appears out of place. The city-owned property covers 100 acres, and more than 70,000 bodies are buried within, including many of Orlando’s luminaries. After about 20 minutes, Price completes his rounds at the cemetery’s northwest corner, where the bodies of four young men are grouped together in a special plot. The “kids,” he calls them. They were among the 49 people killed a year ago in the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

Price parks his truck. The Pulse plot is in the only part of Greenwood he cannot see from the cab, so he leaves the vehicle and walks over thick green grass to inspect on foot. The headstones, under a canopy of a 150-year-old live oak, are in a space about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. Young tabebuia trees — some of the 49 that Price’s crew planted last summer, one for each victim — stand in a line behind the graves, in front of a chain-link fence that separates the plot from an expressway. Price carries a garbage grabber for removing any flowers that have wilted in the 95-degree heat, or teddy bears that have become mottled by rainwater. “You don’t want one of these graves looking like it’s been discarded,” he says.

Price is 49 years old, a sturdy man with a graying goatee and consoling blue eyes. Among his 20-some tattoos is a quotation from Ernest Hemingway inked on the back of his right calf. “The world breaks everyone,” it reads. “And afterward, many are stronger at the broken places.” He has been Greenwood’s sexton for 15 years, and has seen death come in many ways. But the plot in the northwest corner is different. When he recalls the night of the attack — June 12, 2016, the worst mass shooting in modern American history — he looks dumbfounded and says, “I mean, these were kids who just wanted to dance.”

The morning after the shooting, Price received a call from Buddy Dyer, the mayor of Orlando. He wanted to know if Greenwood had an area that could accommodate all 49 bodies so that the city could relieve the burden of burial expenses for the families. The cemetery was established in 1880, Price said, and was bought by the city 12 years later. Price thought of the northwest corner, Greenwood’s newest section, which, unlike most of the rest of the grounds, was still largely unclaimed. Because the cemetery is maintained under a trust, the city council’s approval would be needed.

Price was well acquainted with one of the six city council members, Patty Sheehan, who is a lesbian and an activist for L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Pulse, whose clientele that night was primarily gay and Latino, was in her district. Sheehan liked the idea of offering space to the victims in Greenwood, among the heralded citizens of the city’s past. There was no time to lobby her colleagues — without warning, Dyer went ahead and put the proposal on the agenda of an emergency session scheduled for later that week — but in the end no convincing would be needed: the vote came back unanimous, with the full council supporting setting aside the land.

Patty Sheehan, Orlando’s first openly gay city commissioner, holds a lock affixed to a fence lining a plot for the victims of the Pulse nightclub in the city’s Greenwood cemetery. [Dustin Chambers for The Trace]

Most of the families of the people who were killed at Pulse took the bodies of their loved ones to plots near relatives in other parts of the state or country, or overseas, in Mexico or Cuba. About a week after the shooting, Greenwood held funerals for the four who remained and would be buried there. Price worried that the services might be picketed by the fervently anti-gay members of the Westboro Baptist Church. So he acquired a parade permit from the city, which allowed him to shut down a lane of the adjacent road. For further privacy, he overlaid a dark screen over the chain-link fence that separates the road from the graves. “He’s the most amazing, decent guy,” Sheehan says of Price. “An elegant Southern redneck gentleman.” Price decorated the barrier’s interior with rainbow and American flags.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Price stood in the Pulse plot and pointed to the live oak there. “It’s bright and healthy,” he said. “It’ll handle storms just fine, even if it’s struck by lightning. It’ll live a good, long while.” The Pulse graves are arranged in the shape of an L. At the tip of the short leg is Leroy Valentin Fernandez, who was born in 1990; he loved to sing Beyoncé songs. Behind him is Anthony Laureano Disla, also born in 1990, who moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico three years ago to become a choreographer. Next to him is Cory James Connell, born in 1994, an avid sports fan who died while trying to protect his girlfriend from flying bullets. Beside him is Alejandro Barrios Martínez, the youngest, born in 1995, in Cuba; his idol was Olga Tañón, a Puerto Rican vocalist who performed at his funeral. Each grave sees frequent visitors. “The flowers here are still fresh, and it’s a year later,” Price said. “You bring flowers because you love that person, even though you don’t get anything in return. It’s a beautiful thing. The building has the bad memories, but this is the peace, where people come together.”

The headstones belonging to the four Pulse victims who are buried in Greenwood. [Dustin Chambers for The Trace]

Other visitors leave brightly painted Master Locks on the fence with messages like “comfort” and “never forget.” Among the small statues of winged angels and the solar lights that illuminate the headstones in the evening can also be found more personal mementos. There’s an unopened bottle of Gatorade next to Connell’s stone, and a football with a note on its surface: “You’ll always be our MVP! Happy Birthday Baby Boy!!” Patty Sheehan has reserved a plot at the foot of his grave; she had planned to be cremated when she dies but decided she wanted to be buried with the young men instead.

When Price encounters people paying their respects at the Pulse plot, he’ll engage them in conversation. “Many of the victims are buried someplace else, but their friends are still here,” he said. “They’re really young, and they come here because they need a place to go.” He added, “And most of them have never experienced death before.” If visitors look like they’re having a tough time, Price might offer them some water as they compose themselves. “I’ve met hundreds of people connected to Pulse,” he said. “And I’ve given out a lot of hugs.” He added, “Hugs are free.”

Price sometimes tells mourners about the tabebuia trees. They were donated by Bob Carr, Jr., an Orlando schoolteacher in his 60s. In 2014, his 25-year-old son, Brendan, died in a motorcycle accident, and he began to grow the trees in pots as a form of therapy. Two years later, shortly after the Pulse shooting, he heard a radio story about the Greenwood plot. “It suddenly clicked,” Carr remembers. “I wondered how many tabebuias I had, and, sure enough, there were exactly 49.” At the moment, the delicate trees stand no more than three feet tall. When they mature, the branches will fan out from the trunk, covered in glorious pink flowers.